Overview on Error Analysis
What is an error?
An error is a learner language form that deviates from, or violates, a target language rule.
Remember that accuracy is just one of three ways of describing learner language (accuracy, complexity and fluency). Accuracy occurs when learner language conforms to the rules of the target language; error occurs when it does not. Those rules may be at different levels: pronunciation, morphology, syntax, lexicon, discourse, or sociolinguistics.
What is error analysis?
Error analysis is a method used to document the systematic errors that appear in learner language. Language teachers who listen to the speech of their students probably notice the errors first. But the truth is that everyone makes errors in speaking, even native speakers and language teachers. For example, most native speakers don’t always follow the rules in the grammar books we use to teach learners. Those ‘book’ rules may be used only in formal contexts but not in informal discourse, or they may not fit speakers from all geographic regions where the language is spoken.
While native speakers make unsystematic ‘performance’ errors (like slips of the tongue) from time to time, or shift from formal to informal grammatical patterns in informal contexts, second language learners make errors that no native speaker ever makes, errors that are systematic violations of the linguistic patterns to which they have been exposed. An error analysis – and teacher corrections – should ignore unsystematic performance slips (mistakes) and focus on errors, which are systematic violations of the rules to which the learners have been exposed; these tell us something about the learner’s current knowledge of the rules of the language being learned. (Corder, 1981, p.10).
How teachers can do an error analysis
When we listen casually to learner speech, we tend to notice some errors more than others. Some errors are salient to native speakers, while others, even though they’re systematic, may go unnoticed. For this reason, it is valuable for a teacher to periodically do a detailed error analysis, to identify systematic errors that should be targeted for corrective feedback. Researchers have worked out a procedure for doing this. Following Corder (1975) , here is a simple version of that procedure that teachers can use:
1. Identify all the errors in a sample of learner language
For each error, what do you think the speaker intended to say, and how should the speaker have said it? Offering such a ‘correction’ is always tricky. While teachers have to do this constantly , they can easily make mistakes because there is usually more than one possible reconstruction of a learner error. Tarone & Swierzbin (2009, p.25) offer this example from an English language learner:
Learner: … our school force us to learn English because um it’s, it’s a trend.
This utterance has errors on several levels. Here are possible reconstructions:
a. Our school forced us to learn English because it was a trend.
b. Our school required us to learn English because it was a popular language.
c. Because everyone felt it was important, English was a requirement at our school.
This example shows that the ‘correction’ you make to an error depends on what you think the intended message and the error is. Any given learner utterance may contain errors at many levels at once: phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical. When you have time to do it, it is always a good idea to think of several different possible reconstructions of any given error, if only to remind yourself that you’re never entirely sure of what the learner’s intended message is. Keep an open mind, and ask the learner to help you decide which of your reconstructions fits best.
2. Explain the errors
Decide if the ‘error’ you’ve identified is systematic, or just a performance slip (a mistake). Do this by looking at the entire piece of learner language you are working with, and see if the ‘error’ occurs more than once. If it does occur several times, then see if you can identify possible causes for the error. The error could be due to native language transfer (using a rule or pattern from the native language). If there doesn’t seem to be any source in the native language, consider the possibility that the error is developmental -- an ‘intralingual’ error that’s made by all learners of a given language regardless of their native language. Other errors may be induced errors caused by the way a teacher or textbook presented or explained a given form, or communication strategies used by the learner to get meaning across even though he or she knows the form used is not correct (see Selinker 1972 for a discussion of these and other possible causes of errors). Different causes of error may require different sorts of response from the teacher.
What error analysis misses
An error analysis counts incorrect instances of a form. However, it misses at least two things. One is the correct forms the learner produces. The teacher needs to know when a learner produces a form correctly as well as when it’s in error. So you need to keep track of the system behind both correct and incorrect productions of a form. The second thing an error analysis misses is avoidance. You may count very few errors in relative clauses in a sample of learner language, but then realize that the learner simply isn’t trying to produce any relative clauses at all -- correct OR incorrect. Learners who know they have difficulty with such structures may find ways to avoid producing them (see Schachter, 1976).
How does a teacher respond to learner errors? It’s important to remember that the teacher usually prioritizes correction of some errors and not others because of the class syllabus. If you are teaching a lesson on past tense morphemes, then you will prioritize correction of past tense morphemes in learner speech. Teachers may also want to prioritize correction of errors that no native speaker would ever make in any social context or geographical region. Errors that you might hear some native speakers make in casual contexts or in certain geographical regions may be less important for you to correct, at least at first. Remember that the samples of learner language on this website were not collected in a classroom; they were collected outside the classroom, in activities that were focused entirely on meaning and communication. Also, some of these learners have been exposed to informal speech outside the classroom, and others have only been exposed to formal grammar rules. For this reason, it would be difficult to decide which of their errors you’d want to correct if you were their teacher (assuming, of course, that you can’t correct them all). You can see and reflect on examples of error correction in our website unit on Learner Language in Interaction.
To learn more about error analysis, we recommend that you read Chapters 3 and 4 in Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005).
Multimedia Activities focused on Learner Characteristics
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